Indiana Becomes Face Of Wounded Workforce

Elkhart, Ind., took center stage this week as the backdrop for President Barack Obama's pitch at winning over Congress with his economic stimulus package. The Indiana town has the nation's highest jobless rate, a whopping 15 percent.

Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican, represents Indiana's 3rd Congressional District, which borders Elkhart. Souder talks about rebuilding Indiana's workforce and explains why, although his community is among the hardest hit by the looming economic crisis, he voted against President Obama's original stimulus bill.

Elkhart Eager For A Boost, But Not A Bailout

Elkhart, Ind., hosted President Obama's town hall meeting Monday, and people waiting to get in endured frigid temperatures Monday morning while standing in a line longer than a football field.

The city suffers from almost 17 percent unemployment as the economy spirals further into disarray. A year ago, it was around 5 percent.

"Everywhere you look, people who have held jobs, who have been able to take care of their families ... basically their entire lives, are for the first time being forced to go to food pantries just to make sure they can make ends meet," Greg Halling, managing editor of The Elkhart Truth, tells Madeleine Brand.

"They know nothing's going to happen unless Washington can help some way," Halling says. "That's why they want to hear the president come here and talk about people like them. Nobody really wants a handout here. ... Nobody wants the president to come in and somehow bail out Elkhart. What we want is a chance to get back to work."

Elkhart is the core of a county with a population of about 200,000, Halling says. About 16,000 people are out of work, many for the first time in their lives.

Vehicle manufacturing is a big part of the economy in a town "commonly referred to as the RV capital of the world," Halling says.

"They build RVs, they build trailers, they build auto parts here. Basically, this is a place that makes stuff," he says. "We can make virtually anything. ... If we start developing 'green' energy sources, we can make the parts necessary to make that happen."

Despite the difficult times, Halling says Elkhart and its surrounds are full of people who expect to get back on their feet.

"There is still hope here," he says. "This is a community of fighters."

He notes that nearby Middlebury has also been hit hard by layoffs.

"In Middlebury ... when people are late getting their unemployment checks, they go to the food pantry to pick up some help," Halling says. "When their checks arrive, they return and they help restock the food pantries. I think that pretty much sums up the kind of community this is."

Related NPR Stories



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.